The Eternal Word

The Eternal Word

Your word, O Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens. (Psalm 119:89)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being that has come into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. . . . And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John 1:1–4, 14)

The Word as presented in these Bible passages is vast, eternal—a cosmic being or presence that exists beyond all the created universe as its source and as the instrument of its creation. In its essence, it is above human comprehension. The words of the Lord through Isaiah the prophet come to mind:

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the Lord. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8–9)

Seeking the Eternal Word

Through the ages, saints and prophets, seers and mystics have sought this eternal Word, this very Form of God. Yet even in their deepest ponderings and most ecstatic experiences they have barely penetrated its surface, let alone plumbed its depths. When Moses asked to see God’s glory, the Lord answered him:

“I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the Lord, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” (Exodus 33:19–20)

The Lord did pass in front of Moses; but while he was passing by, he hid Moses in a cleft in the rock and covered him with his hand. Only after the Lord had passed by was Moses able to look, seeing him from the back as he receded.

Experiencing God by looking the infinite divine Being in the face would be like learning the nature of the sun by flying straight into its surface; the experience would be so intense that it would destroy us. Similarly, to know the eternal Word on its own terms would be to know the very essence of God—and our human minds can no more comprehend the infinite, eternal essence of God than a teaspoon can hold the world’s vast oceans.

God reaching out to us

If it were up to us—if it were the job of our finite minds to bridge the gap between humanity and God, the task would be hopeless. There is no ratio between the finite and the infinite. Even when our finite minds had traveled the greatest distance we could ever conceive of, we would be no closer to reaching the infinite than when we had taken our very first step. There would always remain an infinite distance between us and God. It is as impossible for us to reach God as it would be for even our greatest engineers to build a suspension bridge to the sun.

That is why God, out of infinite love, has chosen to bridge the gap from the other end. The finite can never attain the infinite, but the infinite can reach out to the finite, touch it, and draw it toward itself. And the Lord has chosen to reach out to us, touch us, and lift us up—if we are willing—toward the infinite love, wisdom, and power that is God. As the Lord said through the prophet Hosea:

I led them with human cords, with ties of love. I was to them like one who took the yoke off their jaws. I bent down to them and fed them. (Hosea 11:4)

We cannot reach up to God, but God reaches down to us through love; the Lord loosens and removes from our jaw the yoke of mere human speculation and philosophy, and feeds us with the true, spiritual food of divine goodness and truth.

We cannot reach up to the eternal Word, but the Word that was in the beginning with God and was God reaches down to us. In the words of the Psalm, “He bent down the heavens and descended” (Psalm 18:9). The Lord, with mighty power, penetrated all the layers and barriers separating finite human beings from the infinite, and became present to us. In person, God did this as the Lord Jesus Christ—the Word made flesh. In the written word, God did this as a book that we call the Word of God, namely, the Bible.

Seeing the Lord in the clouds

The Bible is not infinite, divine truth as it is in itself. If it were, we would not be able to comprehend it. Rather, the Bible is divine truth that has clothed itself in the clouds of human understanding. The Bible is a reflection of the infinite divine truth that has been adapted to the limitations and even the fallacies of the finite human mind. It is not the sun itself, which we could not survive if we were to come into contact with it; rather, it is rays from the sun that have traveled millions of miles to us, thinning out as they go, and have then been further moderated and adapted by their passage through the atmosphere.

We know that if we were exposed to direct sunlight, even as it exists above our atmosphere ninety-three million miles away from the sun, we could not survive it long. The intense radiation would kill us even if the vacuum of space didn’t. Our travelers to the moon must wear spacesuits, not only to provide an atmosphere, but to protect them from the solar radiation that hits the moon’s surface without the benefit of an atmosphere to moderate it on its way down. The ozone layer that environmental scientists were worried about is just one of the layers that protects us from overly intense elements of the sun’s rays.

That atmosphere is not part of the sun, but part of the earth. It forms a very thin envelope around the earth—just a few miles thick, compared to the eight thousand mile diameter of the earth. And yet that thin, fragile envelope of atmosphere is what adapts the sun’s rays to our small, fragile bodies so that we can not only survive the sunlight, but thrive in its warmth and light.

The literal meaning of the Bible provides the same atmosphere, with all its clarity and its cloudiness, for the Lord’s eternal Word. The Bible’s literal meaning adapts infinite, powerful divine wisdom to the finite level of our human minds, so that instead of destroying us with its intensity, it becomes a life-giving source of enlightenment and understanding. Here is how Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) explained it:

Since the Bible is a divine revelation, every single part of it is divine. Anything that comes from the divine could be no other way. Everything that comes from the divine goes down through the heavens all the way to people on earth. In heaven it is adapted to the wisdom of the angels there, and on earth it is adapted to the understanding of the people there. So the Bible has an inner, spiritual meaning for angels and an outer, material-level meaning for people on earth. That is why our connection to heaven happens through the Bible. (The New Jerusalem #252)

The literal meaning of the Bible, like the atmosphere, is drawn from things of this earth. It does not surround the sun—who is the Lord; rather, it surrounds the earth, and is made of the finer elements of earthly material. The literal meaning of the Bible is drawn, not directly from the mind of God, but from the human mind, from human culture, from human experience. Like the clouds in our sky, it consists of earth-bound ideas that have been lifted up into the sky. The divine light does not come from the clouds; rather, it shines through them, moderated and adapted to our minds here on the surface of the earth.

Darkness and light in the Bible

Once we understand this, we can begin to appreciate why the Bible is written the way it is; why there are so many things in it that seem so far from the infinite divine. Why there are murders and wars, adultery and polygamy, cruelty and butchery along with the sublime, spiritual passages that we love to quote. Like the sky, the literal meaning of the Bible is sometimes clear and bright, sometimes partly cloudy, and sometimes swathed in a thick cloud cover that lets through only a dark and stormy version of the divine truth. And yet, the storms are things of the earth, not things of the sun. It is expressed this way in the Psalms:

Praise the Lord, O my soul.

O Lord my God, you are very great;
     you are clothed with splendor and majesty.
He wraps himself in light as with a garment;
     he stretches out the heavens like a tent
     and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters.
He makes the clouds his chariot
     and rides on the wings of the wind.
He makes winds his messengers,
     flames of fire his servants.
                                               (Psalm 104:1–4)

“He makes the clouds his chariot.” The clouds of human understanding, derived from the earth of the human mind, become, in the literal meaning of the Bible, vessels to carry divine truth to our minds, like a chariot on which the Lord rides to cross the gap between the infinite and the finite.

There is no need to rebel against the dark and cloudy passages of the Bible, nor is there a need to think that they represent the personality of God as it is in itself. The sun remains a vast untouched sphere of heat and light even when it shines through the darkest clouds and looks to us like threatening darkness and devastating lightning. The darkness and lightning reflect the fallacies and conflicts in the human mind, set in motion by the influence of the sun’s rays, in a process that eventually leads to clarity and new life.

As we read the narrative of the Bible, we can think of the Lord riding in the cloudy chariot of human ideas, conception, and culture, adapting them to serve as messengers of a divine truth that is deeper, higher, and clearer than the human stories and images in which they are clothed. As Psalm 78 expresses it:

O my people, hear my teaching;
     listen to the words of my mouth.
I will open my mouth in parables,
     I will utter hidden things, things from of old.
                                     (Psalm 78:1, 2)

The Psalm goes on to narrate, in poetic fashion, the history of the Israelites from their wilderness wanderings through their battles and their entry into the Holy Land to the time when they were settled in the land under king David. All of this, says the Psalmist, is a parable, providing the teaching of the Lord, enfolding “hidden things, things from of old.” And of the Lord while he was on earth it was also said, “Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable” (Matthew 13:34).

A very precise relationship

Though the Lord speaks to us in parables, the relationship between infinite divine truth and finite human conceptions is anything but arbitrary and haphazard. The same divine law by which the Lord created the universe and everything in it out of the substance of divine love, and the same law by which God continually sustains and renews the world of nature, is the law by which the Sacred Scriptures are written. There is a definite relationship between each and every finite being, object, and phenomenon in the universe and the infinite Source from which it comes. Just so, there is a definite relationship between every person, place, animal, object, and event in the Bible story and the infinite Love and Wisdom that this divine narrative serves to adapt and deliver to finite human minds.

The wars of the Bible are not about physical wars, but about spiritual ones; they speak of the battles between good and evil, truth and falsity, that continually rage both in our own souls and in the wider human world around us. When the sun shines and the rain falls in the Bible, it is not about physics and biology, but about the Lord’s life-giving love warming our spirits, and the refreshing rain of spiritual truth renewing our minds. It is the Sun of righteousness rising with healing in his wings (Malachi 4:2), and it is the Lord saying to us:

Listen, O heavens, and I will speak;
     hear, O earth, the words of my mouth.
Let my teaching fall like rain
     and my words descend like dew,
Like showers on new grass,
     like abundant rain on tender plants.
                     (Deuteronomy 32:1, 2)

The Word of God is now opened

The Lord Jesus said, “I have many more things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now.” And later, after his resurrection, he walked with two of his followers, unknown to them, and “beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:27), adding that “everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms (Luke 24:44).

The Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms—the entirety of the Word of God—is one great divine parable, telling us about the Lord and about the Lord’s saving, healing work throughout the ages. And the key to that divine parable has now been given to us. “Now,” as Swedenborg wrote, “we may enter with understanding into the mysteries of faith” (True Christian Religion #508). Now the eternal Word has been opened to our vision. “This is the Lord’s doing, and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23).

(This post is a lightly edited version of a talk originally given on February 2, 2003.)

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About

Lee Woofenden is an ordained minister, writer, editor, translator, and teacher. He enjoys taking spiritual insights from the Bible and the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg and putting them into plain English as guides for everyday life.

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20 comments on “The Eternal Word
  1. Radko says:

    Dear Lee,

    Thank you for your last “insight”. I am going to print it and read it afterwards as usually. How are you and your wife getting on in Soweto? The coronavirus pandemic, as it seemed to come to its end, has been replaced by another plague here and everywhere. We are having a regular and brutal war now! Luckily, the rockets aren´t flying right here but quite far off. Despite it, we receive many Ukrainian refugees, help them here, and support Ukraine itself with humanitarian help and even with weapons. Thus, actually, we are in the war as well but do not feel the atrocities of the Russians. And miraculously, the world still goes on.

    I haven´t been able to organize any further gatherings of the Swedenborgians. They have been cancelled so far. I have been busy with the care of my seriously ill mother and I´m struggling for the power to carry on myself.

    Stay well and let me hear from you.

    Best regards,

    Radko (from Czechia)

    • Lee says:

      Hi Radko,

      It is good to hear from you, my friend. Glad you enjoyed the article. Sorry for the slight confusion about your comment getting put on hold for moderation. You had used your full name instead of just your first name as before, which triggered the hold. I returned it to your first name only.

      Life in Soweto continues to be challenging, but good. I have started my studies that should lead to a PhD, though it will take longer than originally planned. Still, I’m on the path now. We do what we can to help our neighbors here, and they help us in return. It is a good community.

      We do get all the news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine. It is a sad state of affairs. War seems to be gradually waning in our world, but this is a painful reminder that we still have a lot of growing up to do. One day we will outgrow punching and kicking each other as a way to resolve our differences. For now, we still seem to prefer to act like adolescent boys. I am glad that you are far enough away from the bombs and guns to be out of danger yourself.

      Sorry to hear about your mother’s illness. It is good that she has a devoted son to take care of her. We have not moved forward yet on any of our Swedenborgian outreach plans here in South Africa either. But I continue to teach the seminarians at Mooki Memorial College, in hopes that they will carry the good word out to the people. There are also possibilities for new outreach initiatives within the next few years.

      And yes, life goes on. That’s how God has arranged it for us. We take the blows, and then life goes on. In the end, we will be able to leave all of this behind. But for now, we still have work to do here on this earth. Lots of work to do.

      Be well, my friend.

  2. Radko says:

    It is very well and clearly written. Thank you for this post. It is strengthening, too. Radko

  3. Brian Lauthen says:

    Hi Lee,

    Is there a recommended current bible translation (ESV, NET, NKJV, etc) that is considered the best to use, especially in light of correspondences and accuracy to Swedenborg.

    Thanks,
    -Brian

    • Lee says:

      Hi Brian,

      There is no perfect translation of the Bible. Here on Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life I mostly use the NRSV and the NIV because they are reasonably faithful to the original languages while using more contemporary language than the KJV and other translations of earlier eras. However, there are places where these translations get it badly wrong, such as translating the Hebrew word for a sin offering in the book of Leviticus as “a penalty for sin,” which is not at all what the Hebrew word means, and which embodies misunderstanding of how sacrifices functioned in ancient Hebrew culture, based on errant Protestant penal substitution atonement theory.

      The King James Version continues to be a generally faithful translation, but even it is by no means perfect. Sometimes it is necessary to go back to the original Hebrew or Greek to get the precise meaning of a verse or passage. For close Swedenborgian Bible study, for people who are not able to consult the original languages, Young’s Literal Translation, which is easily available online, is a good one to consult. Its language is a bit old-fashioned, similar to the KJV, but it does stay much closer to the original Hebrew and Greek. For the same reason, it’s not much good for devotional reading because its language is not only old-fashioned, but quite stilted precisely because it attempts to stick very closely to the idioms and phrasing of the original languages.

      I’ve tried the ESV from time to time, but it just hasn’t quite clicked for me. I haven’t spent enough time with it to figure out exactly why. I know it’s well-liked in contemporary Christian scholarly circles, but so far it just hasn’t worked very well for my purposes.

      There have been some attempts by Swedenborgians to produce a Bible translation more suitable for Swedenborgian Bible study, but the results have not been entirely satisfactory. For one thing, they tend to still use rather old-fashioned English, making them a bit of a stretch for today’s ordinary English speakers.

      I wish I could give a better answer, but there really isn’t one. When I’m doing detailed interpretations of particular passages in the Bible, I often consult multiple translations of the Bible to see if there is one that really zooms in on exactly what’s in the original Hebrew or Greek. Sometimes none of them fully capture it, and I do my own translations, or modifications of existing translations, to carry what’s in the original across as best as possible.

  4. Walt Childs says:

    Lee, your insight on the The Eternal Word is excellent. I always enjoy reading your articles as they help me see through all the spiritual darkness in the world we live in. It was also good to hear how things are going in your work in Africa. I am looking forward reading more articles in the future. Walt

    • Lee says:

      Hi Walt,

      Thank you, old friend. It is always good to hear from you. I do wish I could more actively post on the blog. But between being a university student, a seminary professor, and a professional Swedenborgian scholar, I am finding it difficult to make time to produce new articles for the blog.

      Still, I have not given up on the blog. I do plan to post new material whenever I am able—or at least recycle an occasional old sermon of mine, as with the above post. This one was a favorite of my good Swedenborgian friend Judy Ebbe, who maintained my sermon website gratis for many years during the time I was a Pastor. I posted it here for her enjoyment, and for anyone else who might find it enlightening.

  5. MW79463 says:

    Hi there, I hope you are well.

    My name is Mark and ever since finding sweedenborg everything occult/paranormal has made sense. As well his notes on god, free will and such make the most sense of any seer/psychic I have ever seen.

    At the moment I am scared ill be honest as the world just seems to be getting worse and worse and more and more evil by the day, week, month and year.

    I just wanted to ask does this make sense in line with what swedenborg mentions of the physical ramifications of the second coming where the evils of the world must come to the surface in order for us to overcome them ?

    • Lee says:

      Hi MW79463,

      Thanks for stopping by, and for your comment and question. I’m glad you’re finding Swedenborg helpful in making sense out of this crazy world!

      I do think that many old evils have been coming to the surface since the Second Coming. These evils have always been with us, ever since the Fall, and they have always done their destructive work in human communities and in individual people. But now, for the first time, we are seeing them as evils that should be stamped out, and are fighting the battle against them. When we do that, both individually and as a broad community, evil doubles down and fights back hard. That is the battle we’re seeing in the world today.

      It’s not always easy to see that things overall are getting better, but I do think that they are. Think about whether there is any century in the past that you would rather be living in than the current century. Most people today have it much better than most people did in any previous century. This doesn’t mean there are not still terrible evils and wrongs happening all around us. But at least now we see them as evil, and we are making some attempt to face and deal with them. I’m not convinced that most of the proposed political solutions are actually making things better. But individual people, and people working in voluntary groups, are taking actions that are making things better in many different ways, and in many different parts of the world.

      Mainly, it is our fight to fight. God is not going to swoop in and fix things for us. We made most of the mess we’re in ourselves. It’s our job to fix it. On that, see the later part of this post, which responds to a similar question from a reader in South Africa:

      If the Second Coming has Already Happened, When do Things Start Getting Better?

      If, after reading it, you have further thoughts and questions, feel free to continue the conversation in the comments section there.

      Meanwhile, Godspeed on your spiritual journey.

  6. Deeply Wounded says:

    If the Word is eternal, then that means Song of Songs is eternal too. And the story of Adam and Eve. And that means that God couldn’t take away marriages and love in Heaven or it would be considered hypocritical.

  7. Hoyle Kiger says:

    Random Thoughts: “At birth, life takes a brush and begins to paint. We are the subject but God is the artist. The finished product is abstract. If we are fortunate enough to interpret its meaning, the artwork is complete”. hk

  8. K says:

    One of the central themes of the writings of Swedenborg is love and wisdom, which are fundamental forces or essences in the spiritual world. This may sound like a dumb question here, but what does Swedenborg mean by love and wisdom? Like what’s a simple definition of love according to Swedenborg, and of wisdom?

    • Lee says:

      Hi K,

      It’s actually an excellent question.

      Love and wisdom are so fundamental to reality that, ironically, they are not easy to define. It’s a similar situation with good and truth, which Swedenborg talks about extensively, but never really defines except in relation to one another. An analog would be physical science, in which the material universe is the subject of study, but exactly what the material universe fundamentally is remains elusive.

      Swedenborg starts his most philosophical work, Divine Love and Wisdom discussing this exact difficulty:

      Love is our life.

      For most people, the existence of love is a given, but the nature of love is a mystery. As for the existence of love, this we know from everyday language. We say that someone loves us, that monarchs love their subjects, and that subjects love their monarch. We say that a husband loves his wife and that a mother loves her children, and vice versa. We say that people love their country, their fellow citizens, their neighbor. We use the same language about impersonal objects, saying that someone loves this or that thing.

      Even though the word “love” is so commonly on our tongues, still hardly anyone knows what love is. When we stop to think about it, we find that we cannot form any image of it in our thoughts, so we say either that it is not really anything or that it is simply something that flows into us from our sight, hearing, touch, and conversation and therefore influences us. We are wholly unaware that it is our very life—not just the general life of our whole body and of all our thoughts, but the life of their every least detail. Wise people can grasp this when you ask, “If you take away the effects of love, can you think anything? Can you do anything? As the effects of love lose their warmth, do not thought and speech and action lose theirs as well? Do they not warm up as love warms up?” Still, the grasp of these wise people is not based on the thought that love is our life, but on their experience that this is how things happen. (Divine Love and Wisdom #1)

      So, love is our life.

      But what exactly is our life? As Swedenborg goes on to say in the next couple of sections, it has to do with warmth, and with growing and flourishing.

      Love is also both a substance and a force, similar to the interchangeability of matter and energy in the material universe via Einstein’s famous E=MC2 equation. The substance of God is love, and also the power of God is love. The two are essentially the same.

      Wisdom is inseparable from love. If love is the substance, wisdom is the form. This can be seen as the structure, or as the vector along which the power of love flows. Either one is, likewise, the same.

      So a simple, abstract way of defining love and wisdom is that love is the substance and wisdom is the form. Love is the stuff it is made of, and wisdom is the form that stuff takes.

      For us, love is both the substance and the force of our life, and wisdom is the means by which that substance and force flow out into action. For example, if our fundamental love is to give other people help and comfort in adversity, wisdom is the way we do that in practical terms: listening to them talk about their troubles, giving them a hug, helping them out with something they’re stuck on, even as simple as helping them lift something that’s too heavy for them to lift by themselves, and so on.

      Though we can define love and wisdom abstractly as substance and form, it doesn’t become real until we think of what we ourselves love, what that love moves us to do, and the knowledge, understanding, and wisdom required to put it into action.

      For the really deep dive, I recommend you take the big plunge and read Divine Love and Wisdom. That’s where it’s all laid out. But be prepared, because it’s a challenging and mind-bending read!

      • K says:

        Could one say wisdom is applied truth, similar to the worldly definition?

        And then this “applied truth” is “love given form”, kind of like how time makes space “happen”?

        (I was trying to read DL&W before I posted this.)

        • Hoyle Kiger says:

          “Love is our life” but only one part thereof. When analyzing ‘love’, Swedenborg could just as easily have substituted other abstracts we use to describe the essence of our humanness; hate, fear, insecurities, wisdom, courage, pride, internal peace, etc. All of these characteristics allow us to “grow and flourish” because they allow us to know who we are.

        • Lee says:

          Hi Hoyle,

          Swedenborg’s main point is that love is not abstract. It is concrete. But yes, there are other elements to our character and life, all of which flow from love in one way or another, though some are on the truth/wisdom side of things.

        • Lee says:

          Hi K,

          Yes, wisdom generally does involve action, and not just thought. It is acting wisely, from love, so that good will come from it. So yes, it is also love given form.

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